Thursday, December 27, 2012

….First Came Memphis Minnie reviewed by Steve Jones

….First Came Memphis Minnie
Maria Muldaur & Others
Stony Plain Records
13 songs

Memphis Minnie Is one of the all time great blues persons. She stands out among contemporaries like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey and Sippie Wallace because she accompanied herself on lead guitar while they appeared backed by bands led by Louis Armstrong and other New Orleans greats. Her style of country blues was dubbed the “Memphis Style” and set her apart from the jazzier New Orleans’ style.
Minnie first gained fame performing with Willie Brown and Willie Moore, who also help Robert Johnson come into his own. Later, she performed with and married with guitar player Kansas Joe McCoy and the two eventually wound up in Chicago. She and Joe broke up and she performed in a trio much like later rock bands. In 1941 Minnie switched to electric guitar, further serving even more as a proto-rock figurehead. Her career spanned a half dozen decades and her notoriety as a female beating men at their own game was second to none. Maria Muldaur produced this CD to pay tribute to this extraordinary pioneer woman of the blues.

Muldaur has now recorded 40 albums over her illustrious career. This latest effort is an outstanding homage to Memphis Minnie, with Maria at the mike for 8 of the 13 tracks. Also appearing are Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, Ruthie Foster, Phoebe Snow and Koko Taylor. The latter two artists appear courtesy of their 1976 Sony and 2007 Alligator recordings of “In My Girlish Days” and “Black Rat Swing.” “My Chauffeur Blues” opens the album. This is the tune she and her later husband Ernest Lawler recorded and was the song she beat out Big Bill Broonzy in a “cutting” contest on guitar. Her frenetic playing purportedly went on for 20 minutes to a wildly ecstatic crowd and she was declared winner, taking the prize of a bottle of whiskey home. Roy Rogers backs Muldaur on this cut and goes acoustic, in contrast to Minnie’s 1941 recording. Muldaur’s vocals are sweet and earthy and Roger’s picking is excellent. Muldaur's voice quivers and is so expressive. Roy Saly provides the bass backdrop to this great opener. Bonnie Raitt and Steve Freund team up for the next track, “Ain’t Nothin’ In Ramblin’” and the two hit a home run. Raitt’s vocals are what we expect of this fantastic singer and she and Freund tag team the melodies and chords oh-so-well together.

Muldaur and Alvin Youngblood Hart pair up next in “I’m Goin’ Back Home.” Maria and Alvin trade lead vocals and Hart finger picks with great musicality and dexterity. Nicely played and sung country blues. “I’m Sailin’” features Muldaur in a gritty slow blues with Del Rey and Steve James on the guitars. Rory Block goes solo on “When You Love Me” picks acoustically and also does slide in this very beautiful track. Muldaur, Rey and James “Long As I Can See You Smile” is big time country blues with two guitar pickers blending so well together. “Lookin’ The World Over” opens with a nice Rey guitar and Muldaur with a mean, down and dirty approach to her vocals.

Snows’ track is next. She is backed by Dave Bromberg on guitars and mandolin; other artists were not captured for the recording. Snow’s approach is exceptional and she delivers a memorable vocal performance here in her inimitable style. Muldaur and Hart return for “She Put Me Outdoors” and the duet is quite well done. Dave Earl adds a spicy mandolin to the mix, too. Ruthie Foster adds “Keep Your Big Mouth Closed” and Steve Freund’s guitar along with her vocals show us what this talented young singer can do. Muldaur and Del Rey are together on the next two, with “Tricks Ain’t Walking” and "Crazy Cryin’ Blues” featuring Earl and James on mandolin respectively. The CD closes with Koko’s track, which was Minnie’s unofficial theme song. Bob Margo-lin slips and slides up the frets sweetly and Brother John Kattke adds his ivories, but Koko blows us away here.

All I can say here is that this is an outstanding production and set of performances. To gain an appreciation for the longevity and continued relevance of Minnie’s songs one has but to sit and listen contently. This is is a great tribute and fine set of performances! The CD is well worth adding to your blues library!

Reviewed by Steve Jones

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